Death of the doctor will damage all journalists

The shock was supposed to be followed by respect and restraint. Yet no sooner had the awful news broken of the suicide of Dr David Kelly, a Government seemingly incapable of either was back on the offensive. In both senses of the word.

Instead, we had rancour and recriminations.

Dr Kelly, we now know, was the BBC’s source for the allegations made on the Today programme – and later on the Ten O’Clock News and Newsnight – that the Government had overhyped claims about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction capabilities.

How do we know? Because the Ministry of Defence press officers, apparently authorised at the highest level, had confirmed his identity to briefed reporters. Had they not done so, it’s fair to assume that Dr Kelly would still be alive.

Today reporter Andrew Gilligan – and who will not feel at least a tinge of pity for him? – will be uneasy about the details he published in The Mail on Sunday which narrowed down the field. But still, neither he nor the BBC named Kelly prior to his death. Of course they didn’t. They were maintaining a long-held principle.

On Sunday, their stance changed. By then the corporation felt, after great deliberation, that no further harm could be done by announcing that Kelly had indeed been the source.

It was a mistake. Perhaps its first mistake in what has been, until that point, an admirable and staunch defence of its independence, its journalists and its journalism. Identifying Dr Kelly, even posthumously, was wrong. It weakens the message to other potential whistleblowers, exposers of wrongdoing, that when journalists assure them of anonymity, we mean it. Full stop.

One of the most damaging passages from his select committee evidence came when he was asked what lessons he drew from his experience. “Never to talk to journalists,” he whispered.

When the maelstrom subsides, what will be remembered is that a journalist’s source took his life when his identity became known. That perception is going to be damaging to all of us. Damage that might have been limited if the BBC had resolutely refused to confirm Dr Kelly’s role.

But perhaps the best lesson we as journalists can take from this is that, when we talk about protection of sources, it must not be an idle phrase. Our duty to their wellbeing extends beyond publication or broadcast of the story.

The Government and its mouthpieces would do well to remember that, too. If ever they find themselves demanding a journalist reveal the source of a story – any story – they should think of Dr David Kelly’s anguish. And think again.

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